Fox news: another view of China

Updated: 2012-07-06 08:47

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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Fox news: another view of China

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, says countries like China should not be constrained by narrow Western attitudes toward economic development. Nick J B Moore / for China Daily

'Little credit given to growth that has lifted more people out of poverty than in any period in history'

Claire Fox believes debates about China in the West are often introspective and offer no insights into the new rising economic superpower.

The 52-year-old is director and founder of the Institute of Ideas, a leading London-based think tank.

"The debate we have here about China is often more about us than it is about China," she says.

"We say that as a consequence of economic growth, we have destroyed the planet and that they shouldn't do what we did wrong."

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Fox, a leading libertarian thinker and who is well known in the UK for her TV and radio appearances such as on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze, says little credit is given to the fact that China's growth over the past 30 years has lifted more people out of poverty than in any period in history.

"I happen to be enthusiastic about the achievement of taking 300 million people out of poverty," she says.

Fox, who was interviewed in her offices in central London, says she is frustrated by much of the discussion that takes place about China.

"I think there is some kind of disillusionment in the West about the gains of modernity and of economic growth and it takes a form of skepticism about the gains of prosperity generally. It all then somehow informs the way we talk about China," she says.

Fox, who with her slightly aggressive flat northern vowels often comes across as fearsome in her broadcast appearances but in reality has an easy-going wit, has had a particular focus on China.

Just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she organized a one-day conference in London, called the Battle for China, which was a series of debates "interrogating attitudes to and prejudices about contemporary China".

"There was a catchy strap line to that conference that China bashing had become the new Olympic sport. I felt very uncomfortable about that way of dealing with China because it had become a very easy thing to do," she says.

Fox was born in Barton-upon-Irwell, an area of Eccles in Greater Manchester but was brought up in North Wales before studying English and American literature at The University of Warwick.

She began her career as a mental health social worker but was also prominent in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party fighting on the side of the miners in the Miners' Strike, the seminal UK industrial dispute, in the mid-1980s.

She has become very disillusioned with a lot of leftist thinking in the UK and in the West in general saying that it has become associated with a "hairshirt mentality" and against progress.

She argues this is particularly the case in the environmental debate pertinent to China where the Left seems to want everyone to go back riding bicycles.

"I think a lot of things have become associated with the Right. For example, an unapologetic commitment to progress and modernity is now almost always associated with neo-conservatism whereas it traditionally used to be associated with left-wing thinking and moving society forward," she says.

Through her role with the RCM, Fox moved into journalism and became responsible for its magazine Living Marxism, later shortened to LM, which had a wide readership as an intelligent current affairs magazine. In 2000, it went bankrupt, however, after losing a libel action, but she was allowed by the judge to continue operating the magazine's summer festival of debates called the Institute of Ideas.

This has since become today's think tank, which employs 10 people and runs a number of programs, including debating competitions in the UK and India and an annual Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican, which has no fewer than 350 speakers and is now in its 8th year.

"We felt there was too much orthodox thinking and not enough questioning and we wanted to try and get people to have a richer experience of discussing the big social and political trends of the day. That is why we set up broadly speaking," she says.

Many who follow her appearances on radio or TV are unaware that Fox has a left-wing background since she often takes unexpected positions on a wide range of issues.

"I think that is partly because the old labels of Left and Right no longer work in today's conditions.

"It is not that I consider my old politics has changed but the world has changed and there is no point in rehearsing old arguments. We have to be on top of new developments," she says.

She returns to the theme that one of her frustrations is with the Left and the Green movement about China and other rapidly-industrializing nations such as India.

"If you look at the reaction here when Tata brought out the cheap car. It was 'Oh my God every Indian can now have a car. What a disaster!', when it should have been seen as a fantastic step forward. You have got this new capacity for ordinary people in India to have mobility."

Fox says it was also the same when it was announced the 7 billionth people had been born in October 2011. "It led to a real anxiety fest in the Western media about what a problem this was. I have a different attitude. I tend to see human beings as being part of the creative solution and not a problem," she says.

The think tank head, who has made a number of visits to China, is also a fan of the current trend toward urbanization. By 2025, China will have eight giant cities.

"I am generally enthusiastic about cities. Here in the West there is a panic. Every time we have a debate about cities, we talk about the problems of cities," she says.

"They are destructive and dirty and you find Western consultants going over to China to advise them on how to make them 'sustainable'. It is a dead word from my point of view because it is usually about limits. It is just another of the anxieties of the West transferred into a debate about China," she says.

Fox also says there is a lot of hypocrisy in the West to China's involvement in Africa, particularly when countries like Britain are major investors themselves.

"I went to a conference in London when one of the African speakers was warned by someone from an aid agency about the dangers of accepting Chinese investment," she recalls.

"He thanked them for their advice but said when Africans accepted their money they had to do this, that and the other and now were obviously very wary about this Chinese money being invested in roads and hospitals. It was very amusing."

Fox says she is conscious about making pronouncements about a country like China while not living there. "I am well aware of the fact I am not living in China. I have been there and obviously there are things that are very complicated there.

"I think people are surprised, however, to discover that in China there is very vibrant and open discussion on television that you can sit and watch," she says.

She insists countries like China have a real energy and should not be constrained by narrow Western attitudes toward economic development. "I am ever hopeful that there are generations of young Chinese people who are really thinking about the future and what kind of society they want. I think it is really exciting because they are optimistic," she says.

(China Daily 07/06/2012 page6)